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Talking to someone who might be having suicidal thoughts

Steve, listening volunteer at Walsall and District Samaritans
10 September 2020

If you’re worried that someone you know, love or care about is having suicidal thoughts, you might be struggling to know what to do to help. I’ve been a listening volunteer with Samaritans since 2016 and have spoken to many people who have had thoughts about ending their life.

Prevention is something we can all help with. Knowing the signs and reaching out to someone in need can be the difference between life and death for that person.

What are the signs that someone might be having suicidal thoughts?

With the people you have face-to-face contact with, such as friends, relatives and loved ones, the signs can be many and varied. Someone may appear detached or distant from the world around them. They may seem distracted and not enjoy the things that they would usually enjoy. People sometimes tell us they feel ‘worthless’ and think that those around them would be better off if they were no longer around. There are lots of signs, and this is by no means an exhaustive list. Sometimes, people can show no signs at all that they may be having suicidal thoughts.

What do Samaritans volunteers do?

Samaritans volunteers are trained to listen and support every single caller who contacts our service, regardless of what they are going through. We are trained to listen and recognise signs of how people are feeling. So if they use phrases such as “I can’t go on, I’ve had enough” or “I don’t want to be here anymore”, we try and explore what they mean by this. We do this in a gradual and sensitive way – without pressure or a time limit, hoping to build trust so they can share their innermost thoughts. Anyone can call us on 116 123.

Many callers find it comforting to know that when they call us, they are anonymous. We can’t see their number and don’t trace calls. They don’t even have to share a first name with us. We provide a safe, confidential, and non-judgemental space for callers to talk about the struggles they are going through. Struggles that they may not have been able to talk to anyone else about.

Suicide is a complex issue. Every caller who tells us they are feeling suicidal is treated as an individual. We start every call as a blank canvas and take every call seriously.

How can I help someone I’m worried about?

If you’re worried that someone is struggling, then remember: you have all the skills you need to make a difference to someone.

Samaritans have a useful guide to starting a conversation with someone you’re concerned about.

It’s called SHUSH.

Show that you care. Focus on them, the conversation is not about you, so don’t talk about yourself.

Have patience. They may not want to open up right away. Build trust. Allow them space to talk.

Use Open Questions. A question that requires more than ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Perhaps something like, “How are you feeling today?”

Say it back. Repeating back something they have said can show that you are listening and perhaps want to clarify what they mean.

Have courage. It can take time to earn the trust of someone who feels alone and in crisis. Persevere, it could be exactly what a person needs to be able to share what is going on in their mind.

What else can I do to help someone?

There isn’t a right way of supporting someone – every person and situation will be different, and simply being there to support someone can have a huge impact. However, there are several things that listening volunteers do that might be useful to consider.

Don’t be afraid to use silence; it allows the person to take their time and shows we have the time for them. Try not to jump in with your experiences or let any experiences you have had cloud your view of what the person is struggling with. We also recommend avoiding questions like, “how do you think your family will feel if you end your life?” We don’t think it helps to give someone guilt when they are feeling so awful.

We don’t shy away from talking about suicide. Many people are worried about broaching this subject as they worry that it may put the thought in the person’s head. There’s no evidence to suggest this. In fact, many people feel liberated being able to finally talk honestly and openly to someone who takes the time to listen and not judge. Finally, be kind. It can make all the difference.

If you think that someone is in immediate danger, then the quickest way to get help is by calling 999.

Seeking support if you’ve spoken to someone who is having suicidal thoughts

In Samaritans, the importance of support is paramount for our volunteers. This is especially important because our confidentiality is one of the foundations of our organisation. We can’t take things home with us and talk to our loved ones. So we support each other as volunteers during and at the end of our shift, or whenever we feel affected by a call.

It’s important that you seek support too if you have had a difficult conversation with someone. That’s where we can help. You can call 116 123 and talk to one of our volunteers at any time of the day or night.

Do remember that you don’t have to be suicidal to call or email us. We are here for anyone who is struggling, no matter what that they are facing.

Samaritans sign
Whatever you are going through, you don’t have to face it alone. Call for free on 116 123, email jo@samaritans.org or visit www.samaritans.org to find out more information.
Steve
Steve, listening volunteer at Walsall and District Samaritans

    • Suicide. Mental Health Foundation. www.mentalhealth.org.uk, last updated 11 September 2019
    • How to support someone you’re worried about. Samaritans. www.samaritans.org, accessed 8 September 2020
    • Supporting someone with suicidal thoughts. Samaritans. www.samaritans.org, accessed 8 September 2020

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